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Thai Sticks

Lotus blooms in Healdsburg

By Steve Bjerklie

RESTAURANTS featuring a particular cuisine fight a constant battle of compromise. Authentic flavors, textures, and presentation struggle against the need to offer food that local patrons will like and buy. This is not much of a factor anymore for Italian, Mexican, and French restaurants, whose culinary traditions have been nationalized by Americans, but for newer traditions such as Indian, Moroccan, and Thai the battle of compromise still rages. Should a chef spice dishes with strict adherence to tradition or hold the hot stuff to accommodate moderate American palates? Should fat, sodium, and MSG be cut back to respect America's diet obsessions? What about foods that are traditional in other parts of the world--monkey, for example--but that Americans wouldn't lift a fork for?

In the case of Lotus Thai, a cozy 36-seat storefont on the square in Healdsburg, chef Vilaiwan Bentall (she goes by "Jackie") strikes a near-perfect balance between offering authentic dishes of her native Thailand and acknowledging the tastes and desires of Californians: she serves no monkey. She does serve the best peanut sauce in the county, and arguably the most succulent chicken satay. Some of Lotus Thai's dishes may be a tad mild for devotees of traditional Thai fireworks-in-your-mouth foods, but I found them immensely flavorful and delicious. They accompany the Singha brand of Thai beer that Lotus Thai serves with grace and aplomb.

And they gave me something new in life to appreciate: the wonders of coconut milk.

This elixir is to Thai food what cream is to French. It smooths and blends motifs and textures as precisely and elegantly as an orchestra string section. Bental's Masaman Curry, with slices of beef accented by slivers of orange, swims in the delicate milk. (Indeed, Thai curry, unlike Indian curry, cannot be made authentically without coconut milk). The Beef Pumpkin Curry entrée amazingly creates harmony from a triad of disparate elements. And for the straight stuff, try what Lotus Thai's menu describes as a "refreshing young coconut drink": sweet, milky, and yes--exquisitely refreshing.

But coconut milk is not anyone's idea of health food, so order at Lotus Thai in variety (Bentall points out that this is the way Thais eat anyway). Ginger Pork presents tender sautéed meat on a bed of organic vegetables. The night I enjoyed this dish the pork was a hair dry, left in the pan for perhaps 30 seconds too long, but this is a minor quibble. A bowl of Pad Thai, the noodly signature food of Thailand, was considered just a bit mild and mushy by dining companions who have eaten the stuff in Bangkok, but I thought Lotus Thai's version as good as any I've eaten stateside. All agreed that the Satay Chicken is nothing short of magnificent--the chicken butter-soft, the peanut sauce perfection incarnate. High marks also for the Mee Krob appetizer (fried angel-hair rice noodles with egg, green onions, and cilantro).

For dessert, try the crispy and sweet fried banana. Also available to end the meal are tapioca pudding and orange sherbet.

Dinner for three, including appetizers, three entrées, two desserts, and a few Thai beers, cost less than $90 with tip, a definite worth-the-trip value.

Jackie Bentall opened Lotus Thai with her husband, Gerald, last February after running the kitchen at California Thai in Santa Rosa for a year. She comes by her talent honestly: several members of her family are in the restaurant business in Thailand. Indeed, this couple met in Bangkok several years ago, when Gerald, who now helps out his wife in several capacities (including waiting tables occasionally) was there on assignment for the Rockefeller Foundation.

"I like to cook," says Jackie, who glows with smiles beneath a black cloche of short-cropped hair. "In Thailand, everything revolves around food. All meetings, all gatherings--food is at the center. It means hospitality and welcome." Exactly what the food means at Lotus Thai, too.

Lotus Thai

109 A Plaza St., Healdsburg; 433-5282
Hours: Lunch from 11:30 a.m.; dinner from 5 p.m.; closed Monday
Food: Bangkok meets Healdsburg
Service: Unobtrusive and adequate
Ambience: Neat, clean, well-lit storefront
Price: Relatively inexpensive.
Wine list: California wines; also domestic and imported beers

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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